Op-ed: Green Party Can Win, by Giving Up

[Update 23/5/14: With the disappearance of the original from the Ottawa Citizen’s pages—a perennial problem with the recently replaced website—I have reproduced the original article in its entirety here. Oh, and speaking of the new site, go check it out if you haven’t already. It’s a beaut, and the associated apps are something as well. SP]

My op-ed from last week’s Ottawa Citizen:

More than 80 per cent of Canadians believe there is “solid evidence” that the Earth has got warmer in recent decades, according to a survey released recently by think-tank Canada 2020 in co-operation with the University of Montreal. The same study found that 77 per cent of Canadians are concerned about global warming/climate change, and that nearly nine in 10 agree that the federal government ought to play a leading role in addressing the issue.

These results are at once a vindication and a repudiation of the Green Party of Canada. It is a validation of the idea that Canadians are concerned about climate change, and want to elect representatives who will act decisively on the issue.

Just as clearly however, it’s a rejection of the idea that the Green party can fulfil that need within the confines of Canada’s electoral system. Even as Canadians achieve consensus on the need for action on climate change, the party remains mired at about five-per-cent support nationally. The Greens have been utterly unable to leverage nearly universal concern about the environment into increased electoral support.

It’s not their fault, of course. The challenges facing the Green party are structural, and unlikely to be overcome absent a change in Canadian electoral law. In first-past-the-post political systems such as ours, only a small number of parties can achieve success at any given time. Moreover, competitive parties almost always identify themselves with a broad philosophy of governance applicable in general terms to any political issue, which in turn constitutes part of the bedrock of trust on which broad electoral success is built.

The Green party defines itself by an issue of concern, rather than a governing philosophy. In a proportional representation system, that can be enough to attract significant support. In a system like Canada’s, it is demonstrably not. Outside a small handful of ridings in the country, a vote for the Greens remains a protest vote, and that’s simply not good enough any more.

As Postmedia has reported, Canadians have moved from a debate about whether we should take action on climate change, to what kind of solutions we ought to pursue. Accordingly, the Green party must think hard about how it can contribute most constructively to this new phase of the discussion.

Here is my proposal: the Green party should abandon the pursuit of electoral victory, and embrace a new role in Canadian politics as a Green Network dedicated to support competitive candidates who have made credible commitments to act on climate change, regardless of party affiliation.

I call it the Kenobi Option. (Stay with me here.) Long story short, in the original Star Wars movie Obi-Wan Kenobi recognized that with his own personal flaws, he could never accomplish his goals (i.e. defeating the evil Darth Vader and more generally saving the galaxy). He decided his best option was to give up his own struggle, but did so in a way that granted him a different sort of power. He gained the ability to influence, to work with, to teach someone who had a chance to carry out that greater mission.

The Green party could do something similar. It could recognize its inherent limitations, and agree to abandon its current party form, in exchange becoming the backbone of a powerful movement in Canadian politics.

At base, this Green Network would work with its members in each riding in the run-up to each election to: 1) push all candidates to more progressive environmental positions and then; 2) work with local voters to select and support one candidate in each riding as a “green champion” for that riding around which green voters could coalesce. To be a champion, a candidate would: a) be judged to have made credible commitments to pursue meaningful action on climate change; and b) be highly competitive electorally.

This change would achieve a number of effects. By removing one name from the ballot, it would by definition reduce the likelihood of vote splitting among pro-environmental candidates. The selection of a green champion would further ease voter co-ordination among the remaining candidates. The result? The mandate—indeed a responsibility—to push for action. Between elections, the network would be well positioned to ensure MPs elected with its support honoured their pledges, since those that did not would risk the loss of the “green bump” in subsequent elections.

There are secondary benefits as well. Former Green party members—a dedicated and resourceful group of politically active citizens—would be free to join other political parties, and could work to strengthen existing environmental caucuses there. Rather than encouraging Canadians to elect the Green party, they would instead be working to ensure that whichever party Canadians ended up electing was greener – an approach analogous to effective lobbying campaigns. Finally, a pan-party network would provide a new space for communication and co-operation within our polarized political institutions.

So come on, Greens! Strike yourselves from the ballot and become more powerful than you (or we) could possibly imagine. You rightly pride yourselves on encouraging creative thinking in the face of the environmental challenges that confront us. It’s time to start thinking creatively about the political problems we face as well.

Stewart Prest is a PhD candidate in political science at the University of British Columbia. Follow him at Twitter.com/StewartPrest.


I’ve also turned the article into a call for dialogue between environmentally-sensitive voters within and outside the Green Party. Please read, sign, and share it here if you’re interested.

photo credit: like, totally via photopin cc

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